Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Does the existence of New Orleans make ecological sense?

(New Orleans and Katrina.  How many more times will we rebuild it?)

As an ecologist and an environmentalist I have often wondered whether New Orleans makes any sense at all. This major city is located on the Louisiana coast 2-6 meters below sea level. Using the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, we try to build structures that block the waters of the Atlantic Ocean from flooding this historic metropolitan area of about 1,000,000 people. I have concluded that given the costs of rebuilding the city’s structures and housing, and the probability that future disasters due to hurricanes and flooding are probably 100%, that it does not make sense to continue supporting this endeavor.

My argument goes like this. When we know that a particular disaster has a high probability of occurring, we should minimize our investment of resources in that location. We know the following with virtual certainty at this point: polar ice caps are melting, sea level is rising, and cyclonic storms that arise over the warming oceans of the world are likely to be more common and more intense than in the past. This means that Katrina-like events will occur again along the Louisiana coast. The question is whether humans can design and build structures that will hold out against these powerful natural events. Maybe we can learn something from a place in the world that has been fighting this battle for centuries: the Netherlands.

From Wikipedia, we find that “After the 1953 disaster, the Delta project, a vast construction effort designed to end the threat from the sea once and for all, was launched in 1958 and largely completed in 2002. The official goal of the Delta project was to reduce the risk of flooding in the province of Zeeland to once per 10,000 years. (For the rest of the country, the protection-level is once per 4,000 years.) This was achieved by raising 3,000 kilometres (1,864 miles) of outer sea-dykes and 10,000 kilometres (6,200 miles) of inner, canal, and river dikes to "delta" height, and by closing off the sea estuaries of the Zeeland province. New risk assessments occasionally show problems requiring additional Delta project dyke reinforcements. The Delta project is one of the largest construction efforts in human history and is considered by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of the seven wonders of the modern world.”

In other words, given 2,000 years of experience with trying to keep the ocean at bay in a country where 27% of the land is below sea level, the Dutch have developed a system that is so extensive and so elaborate that it is considered one of the seven wonders of the modern world. The jury is still out as to whether even this will continue to work against rising seas. Now, I am not an expert on this topic, but it appears that the storms that pound the Louisiana coast are more powerful in terms of wind than what typically comes from the North Sea, and the Caribbean storms occur more frequently. In other words, the chances of Americans designing a system that can prevent the kind of disaster we saw in 2005 from occurring again and again seem remote to me.

I realize it is not politically correct to talk about abandoning a city with a 300-year old history. And New Orleans is an important conduit for oil, natural gas, and other products entering through that deep-water port. However, I am sure that some kind of elevated housing could be constructed for those who choose to remain there to work in those industries, which are vital to U.S. commerce. I envision that something like an oil rig structure could be devised that would serve the purpose. But to spend billions of dollars and to squander hundreds of tons of physical materials to rebuild repeatedly seems like folly, not to mention the future human suffering that this encourages.  I would make the exact same argument for development of any kind on the floodplain of rivers, on an active earthquake fault, or next to an active volcano.  It is not a matter of IF disaster will occur again, it is only a matter of WHEN.

I have often admonished my children that the future is not likely to look like the past, and to behave accordingly. This is particularly true in a world that is so populous that we are even changing the climate. It is time that global planners incorporate more ecological thinking into their repertoire. Southeastern Louisiana was once a vast wetland at the mouth of the Mississippi River, and I suggest we let it revert to its natural state.